California Forests: Recognizing their benefits and risks on Earth Day

To celebrate Earth Day in California, we must first recognize the state of our most treasured natural resource – forests.  Here in California, we are home to 34 million acres of forestland.  We boast the tallest (coast redwood), oldest (bristlecone pine) and most massive trees (giant sequoia) in the world that provide us with immense environmental and economic benefits.  They provide us with millions of dollars in tourism and recreation, a steady source of wood products, good rural jobs, clean air, a clean water supply, abundant wildlife and much more.

However, what is one of California’s most treasured resources, is also at serious risk.  The prolonged drought has put tremendous stress on our forests ‑‑ contributing to the death of more than 29 million trees statewide and threatening 58 million more.

Drought, overly dense forests and the potential long-term impacts of climate change have increased stress to trees – leaving them more susceptible to bark beetle infestation and death.

Fuel loads are increasing on the forest floor and our overcrowded forests are filled with drought killed trees that are waiting for the perfect conditions to erupt into a devastating wildfire.

As we enter wildfire season, which is now considered to be a year round season, we face a wildfire threat like we have never seen.  Those fires know no boundaries and show no mercy.

Take the Rim Fire for example that burned 257,000 acres in 2013.  The cost of fighting the fire was estimated at $127.2 million.  However, the total costs were much higher.

For instance, the cost of emergency road, trail and watershed stabilization efforts cost $8.5 million.  It’s estimated that $900,000 was spent to purchase alternative energy and Tuolumne County reported losing an estimated $275,000 in lost tourism dollars.

The Rim Fire destroyed 46 California Spotted Owl Protected Activity Centers and habitat for the great gray owl and the Pacific Fisher, among many others.

But that’s not all.  The Rim Fire released more than 11 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses – roughly equivalent to annual GHG emissions from 2.3 million cars and carbon dioxide emissions from 1.2 billion gallons of gas consumed.

The King Fire in 2014 burned more than 97,000 acres and threatened the sole source of water supply to more than 3,500 people.  In the aftermath of the fire, the Rubicon River ran like chocolate milk from all the sediment and debris.

Last year we saw the Valley and Butte Fires ravage Amador and Lake Counties, burning more than 150,000 acres and referred to as some of the most destructive fires in California history.

These fires threaten our communities.  As more homes encroach into the forested landscape, safeguarding the rural urban interface has become a significant public safety concern.  Take the threats to our water supply.

California’s forested watersheds store water, replenish streams and rivers, and filter pollutants from the water. They serve as a critical water supply to the majority of the State.

In fact, 60 percent of California’s water supply comes from the forested watersheds in the Sierra Nevada, making it critically important that we protect those forests and its watersheds from wildfire.

When catastrophic wildfires burn, they bake the ground, destroying this natural storage and filtration system – leading to severe erosion, debris flows and water quality degradation.

And the tons of emissions that are released into the atmosphere?  Yeah, those fires that burn for weeks on end emit tons of harmful greenhouse gases into the air we breathe.

Approximately 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from wildfire occur during combustion.  The other 75 percent is emitted from subsequent decay of the forest after the fire.

The impacts of wildfires on our water, energy, environment and economy are felt by Californians throughout the state.

So in honor of Earth Day, we ask how can we protect California’s forests from drought, disease and wildfire?  The answer is not easy.  While we can’t prevent natural disturbances, we can take a proactive approach to creating healthier, more resilient forests.

Proactive approaches to remove excess forest fuel and create forests that can withstand low intensity wildfires that stay on the ground.  Ecological-based thinning can provide proper spacing so trees don’t have to compete for limited resources or become susceptible to bark beetle.

Healthy forests matter, not just to those living in and around those forests, but to all Californians who rely on clean water, clean air and recreational opportunities.

So on Earth Day, spend some time in our natural playground and enjoy the benefits of our forests.  Help us create resilient forests so that we can enjoy them for years to come.